Adventure therapy

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Backpacking as part of wilderness therapy

Adventure therapy is a form of psychotherapy created as early as the 1960s. It is influenced by a variety of learning and psychological theories. Experiential education is the underlying philosophy.

Existing research in adventure therapy reports positive outcomes in improving self-concept and self-esteem, help-seeking behavior, increased mutual aid, pro-social behavior, trust behavior, and more. There is some disagreement about the underlying process that creates these positive outcomes.[1][2][3]


Many different terms have been used to identify the diverse methods of treatment in the wilderness environment. Adventure therapy and wilderness therapy are variations of outdoor experiential therapy. Outdoor experiential therapy utilizes the outdoors as a treatment modality to promote "rehabilitation, growth, development, and enhancement of an individual's physical, social, and psychological well-being through the application of structured activities involving direct experience".[4] The latter may be part of a residential treatment program.[4] According to Ewert, McCormick, and Voight, adventure therapy uses outdoor activities that involve some elements of adventure (such as perceived risk, actual risk, or uncertainty), and outdoor experiential therapy programs are "wilderness therapy" if they take place in any outdoor setting (although usually, programs using this term take place in "wilderness-type" settings).[4] More recently, some use the term "adventure therapy" as an umbrella for a wide array of related approaches, including wilderness therapy.[5][6]

More recently, adventure therapy has evolved to include the use of adventure activities supported by traditional therapy. Often, adventure therapy is conducted in groups or families, although it is increasingly being used for individuals.[3] Adventure therapy approaches psychological treatment through experience and action within cooperative games, trust activities, problem-solving initiatives, high adventure, outdoor pursuits, and wilderness expeditions. Some believe that in adventure therapy, there must be a real or perceived psychological and or physical risk, generating a level of challenge or perceived risk. Challenge can be viewed as significant in eliciting desired behavioral changes. Positive behavior changes, which are synonymous with psychological healing, can occur through a variety of processes. For example, through the use of vicarious experience, verbal persuasion, and overwhelming mastery experiences, participants' efficacy in the adventure activity may be increased.[7] These increases may then be generalized to treatment outcomes within and across life domains.[7][8][9] Five factors can be used to promote generalization of efficacy across domains: overwhelming mastery experiences, identification of similar sub-skills, co-development of sub-skills, cognitive restructuring of efficacy beliefs, and generalizing sub-skills.[7]: 50–54  Debriefing or processing provides a context for implementing therapeutic techniques related to the desired outcomes. It typically involves facilitators leading a discussion to help participants internalize the experience and relate it to therapeutic goals.


Adventure as a method of healing can be traced back to many cultures including Native American, Jewish, and Christian traditions.[3]

Emerging in the early 1900s, tent therapy brought certain patients out of psychiatric hospitals and into tents on their lawns. A series of studies were carried out as many patients showed signs of improvement, although they failed to show efficacy due to a lack of evidence. Study and practice of this early version of adventure therapy lasted approximately twenty years and then seemed to have dropped off completely.[1]

In the late 1930s, this approach reappeared mainly as camping programs designed for troubled youth. The era influenced the present-day use and extent of adventure therapy programs with adolescents. The format for these programs utilized observation, diagnosis, and psychotherapy. One of the first of these programs was Salesmanship Club Camp,[10] based in Dallas, Texas, founded by Campbell Loughmiller in 1946. His philosophy of adventure in therapy included the theory that the "…perception of danger and immediate natural consequences for [a] lack of cooperation on the part of [participants]…[after confronting danger] built self-esteem, [while] suffering natural consequences taught the real need for cooperation."[1]: 3  His ideas informed some adventure therapy programs.

This period also saw the creation of Outward Bound in the 1940s by Kurt Hahn.[3][11][12] Outward Bound was a direct response to Lawrence Holt, part-owner of the Blue Funnel Shipping Company, who was looking for a training program for young sailors. These sailors seemed to have lost the tenacity and fortitude needed to survive the rigors of war and shipwreck, unlike older sailors, who were more likely to survive because of their formative experiences on ships.[13] In this way, Outward Bound was engaging in a form of adventure therapy – intervening in the lack of tenacity through the use of challenging adventure training.

In the 1960s, Outward Bound came to the United States through the Colorado Outbound School.[3][14] The Colorado Outbound School uses Kurt Han's survival training program, which focuses on the idea that training through challenges produces better results than training for challenges. Josh Miner adopted Han's philosophy and became the founder of this program, the Colorado Outbound School Program. Since 1962, the Colorado Outbound School Program has been providing outdoor experiential learning for over a million students, through all walks of life.[15]

Other schools quickly began to use Outward Bound as an adjunctive experience working with adjudicated youth and adults (one of the first programs in 1964 offered recently released prisoners a job at Coors Brewery if they completed a 23-day course). In the late 1970s, Colorado Outward Bound developed the Mental Health Project. Courses were offered to adults dealing with substance abuse, mental illness, surviving a sexual assault, and others. In 1980, Stephen Bacon wrote the seminal adventure therapy The Conscious Use of Metaphor in Outward Bound, which linked the work of Milton Erickson and Carl Jung to the Outward Bound process.[clarification needed]

Project Adventure adapted the Outward Bound philosophy for school environments and used ropes course activities developed at the Colorado Outward Bound School into use at schools. Project Adventure emerged in Hamilton-Wenham Regional High School in Massachusetts in 1972 with a principal named Jerry Pieh, son of Robert Pieh, founder of the Minnesota Outward Bound School.[16]

Paul Radcliffe (a school psychologist) and Mary Smithy (a staff member), along with a social worker from Addison Gilbert Hospital, started a 2-hour weekly outpatient group. This model was incorporated into school psychological services and was called the Learning Activities Group.[17] It grew into Adventure-Based Counseling (ABC),[18] a Project Adventure term that reflects the therapeutic use of adventure activities.[19]


Adventure therapy theory draws from a mixture of learning and psychological theories. The learning theories include contributions from Albert Bandura, John Dewey, Kurt Hahn, and Kurt Lewin. These theorists have also been credited with contributing to the main theories comprising experiential education. Experiential education is a theoretical component of adventure therapy.[11][20][21] The ideas and thinking of Alfred Adler, Albert Ellis, Milton Erickson, William Glasser, Carl Jung, Abraham Maslow, Jean Piaget, Carl Rogers, B.F. Skinner, Fritz Perls, and Viktor Frankl all appear to have contributed to the thinking in adventure therapy and experiential movements for the progression of education.[22] Adventure therapy is a cognitive-behavioral-affective approach which utilizes a humanistic existential base to strategically enact change via direct experience through challenge.[2][17][23][24][25][excessive citations]

Most research on adventure therapy as a therapeutic intervention has focused on aspects of cooperation and trust; other research examines therapeutic techniques with adventure therapy or outcomes on pathology.[11] There remains a lack of follow-up data into the standards, requirements, education and training of individuals conducting adventure therapy.[11] In a 1994 meta-analysis aimed at statistically integrating all the available empirical research on adventure therapy, 43 studies in a 25-year span were found to fit the criteria for analysis.[26]

The major theme of these questions about adventure therapy is effectiveness. A group has emerged arguing that before any other question can be answered, the properties that influence the effectiveness of adventure therapy must be answered. This group argues that theory-driven research instead of outcome-driven inquiry will answer this question.[27] Outcome-driven research has generated many conflicting findings that confuse theoretical structure and explanations of effectiveness.[27][28] The outcomes in adventure therapy research are linked to existing psychological theories of change to explain, modify, or validate AT theory. The theories of change have upwards of 400 forms of therapy and related practices that have emerged from a conglomeration of ideas within psychology.[28]

There is still little understanding of the underlying processes influencing therapeutic outcomes of adventure therapy.[27] This has caused extensive discussion concerning why adventure therapy appears effective in treating a multitude of DSM-related mental disorders in children, adolescents, and adults.[2][11][29][medical citation needed] Several researchers have attempted to explain this underlying process.[2][11][30][20][21][29][31][32][33][excessive citations]

Adventure therapy is described as nontraditional therapy allowing for the pre-therapeutic adolescent to experience their mental health issues,[29] with several theoretical aspects:

  1. it is a physical augmentation to traditional therapy for the purpose of a shared history with the participants and the therapist
  2. there is a sense of natural and logical consequences in the activities
  3. social environment should be structured into the activities
  4. a participant perceives risk, stress, and anxiety so that they can problem-solve and generate their own sense of community for feedback and behavior modeling
  5. participants will transfer their present attitudes and behaviors into the activities
  6. works with a small group of participants
  7. requires a facilitator that models appropriate behaviors and guides the group towards adaptive self-regulation that is based upon appropriate behaviors.[29]

Adventure therapy has normalizing effects on deficits in delinquent adolescent developmental processes,[30] as a way of moving into formal operational thinking, which is achieved through the experiential learning theories.[30][32] The theoretical basis of adventure therapy describes the participant as a learning being who achieves their greatest learning outside the classroom, through challenge and perceived risk, promoting social skills through experiencing a group challenge mixed with affect, cognition, psychomotor activity, and formal operational thinking generated through metaphor.[11][20][21] Experiential learning becomes adventure therapy when the activities are planned and implemented as vehicles for patients to address individual treatment goals.[33] Adventure experiences molded into a more therapeutic group model run by the therapist can have a more significant effect than the one-day intervention run by counselors.[33]

Baldwin, Persing, and Magnuson, though, report that many of these explanations are "…folk pedagogies…" that lack thorough empirical evidence.[27]: 172  Adventure therapy research has focused on outcomes without exploring theoretical structure.[34] Some argue that the focus of AT research needs should be on testing and validating theoretical structure,[34] and that discussion of outcomes should only come after a theoretical structure has been validated.[34]


Although some questions remain regarding the efficacy of adventure therapy, existing research suggests that it is an effective modality for treatment.[35][further explanation needed] For example, a meta-analytic review of 197 studies of adventure therapy participant outcomes (2,908 effect sizes, 206 unique samples) found that the short-term effect size for adventure therapy was moderate (Hedges' g = .47) and larger than for alternative (.14) and no treatment (.08) comparison groups.[36] There was little change during the lead-up (.09) and follow-up periods (.03) for adventure therapy, indicating long-term maintenance of the short-term gains.

A meta-analysis of 26 studies of psychological intervention programs for youth at risk which used a version of the Youth Outcomes Questionnaire found very large positive effect sizes for wilderness-based programs according to observers (g = 1.38), which was larger than the changes according to observers for non-wilderness programs (g = 0.74). Participant self-report results showed large effects for wilderness-based programs (g = 0.72) and larger effects for non-wilderness programs (g = 0.89).[37]

Outdoor delinquency programs have a reduced recidivism rate compared to traditional indoor therapeutic programs.[1] Adventure therapy is further viewed as effective because of the apparent positive effects in treating developmental issues with juvenile offenders and adolescent offenders with drug abuse and addiction issues.[32] The effectiveness of adventure therapy on offenders with drug abuse and addiction issues in mental health treatment is related to the characteristics present in addicted offenders. They "…(1) need more structure, [and] (2) they work better with an informal, tactile-kinesthetic design…."[38] Adventure therapy as treatment is equally effective for adjudicated youth and other adolescent populations.[26][32]

A 1994 meta-analysis found that 62% of adolescents who participated in an adventure therapy group were at an advantage for coping with adolescent issues than those who did not.[26] There is a 12% improvement in self-concept for adolescents who participate in adventure therapy.[26] Adolescents are approximately 30% better off in their ability to cope with mental health issues than those who do not participate in a psychotherapeutic treatment, leading to the implication that adventure therapy effectiveness is comparable to the effectiveness of psychotherapeutic treatment.[26][39]

Adventure therapy increases group cohesion and interpersonal relatedness.[3][11][12][40][19][20][31][excessive citations] It is important to note that AT has many challenges and things that could limit its effectiveness. These include: "availability of studies, heterogeneity, generalizability, type of data provided by empirical studies, and the methodological quality of studies."[36]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Berman, D. S. & Davis-Berman, J. (1995). Outdoor education and troubled youth. Online. (ERIC Digest)
  2. ^ a b c d Gass 1993
  3. ^ a b c d e f Parker, M. W. (1992). Impact of adventure interventions of traditional counseling interventions (ropes course). Unpublished doctoral dissertation, The University of Oklahoma, Oklahoma.
  4. ^ a b c Ewert, A., McCormick, B., & Voight, A. (2001). Outdoor experiential therapies: Implications for TR practice. Therapeutic Recreation Journal, 35(2), 107–122.
  5. ^ Black; Bricker (2015). Adventure Programming and Travel for the 21st Century. State College, PA: Venture Publishing. pp. 221–236.
  6. ^ KAPLAN, ADIEL (30 January 2020). "There isn't much science supporting wilderness therapy for teens". Popular Science. Retrieved 9 November 2022.
  7. ^ a b c Bandura, Albert (1997). Self-efficacy : the exercise of control. New York. ISBN 9780716728504. Retrieved 21 March 2022.
  8. ^ Weitlauf, Cervone, Smith, & Wright, 2001[citation not found]
  9. ^ Cervone, 2005[citation not found]
  10. ^ Bryon, Nelson. "Salesmanship Club of Dallas". Salesmanship Club of Dallas. Bryon Nelson. Retrieved 4 April 2016.
  11. ^ a b c d e f g h Blanchard 1993
  12. ^ a b Dickens 1999
  13. ^ "The Birth of Outward Bound". Outward Bound International. n.d. Archived from the original on 10 November 2007. Retrieved 14 November 2007.
  14. ^ see Outward Bound USA
  15. ^ "Our Story | Colorado Outward Bound School". Retrieved 13 March 2022.
  16. ^ Webster, Steven E. (1 April 1978). "Project Adventure a Trip into the Unknown". Journal of Physical Education and Recreation. 49 (4): 39–41. doi:10.1080/00971170.1978.10618847. ISSN 0097-1170.
  17. ^ a b Schoel, J. Prouty, D., & Radcliffe, P. (1988). Islands of Healing: A Guide to Adventure Based Counseling. Hamilton, MA / Project Adventure.
  18. ^ BHSN (25 May 2020). "Adventure Based Counseling | Behavioral Health Services North". Retrieved 22 January 2022.
  19. ^ a b Gillis & Simpson 1992
  20. ^ a b c d Moote, G. T Jr., & Woodarski. J. S. (1997). The acquisition of life skills through adventure-based activities and programs: A review of the literature. Adolescence, 32, pp. 143–167.
  21. ^ a b c Davis, Berman, & Capone 1994
  22. ^ Sakofs, Mitchell (November 1987). "Opinion: Opportunity and Adversity". Journal of Experiential Education. 10 (3): 16–17. doi:10.1177/105382598701000303. ISSN 1053-8259.
  23. ^ Calver 1996
  24. ^ Gillis, H.L. Thomsen, D. (1996) A research update of adventure in therapy (1992–1995) Challenge activities and ropes courses, wilderness expedition, and residential camping programs. U.S., Georgia.
  25. ^ Schoel & Maizell 2002
  26. ^ a b c d e Cason, D; Gillis, HL (1994). "A meta-analysis of outdoor adventure programming with adolescents". Journal of Experiential Education. 17 (1): 40–47. doi:10.1177/105382599401700109. S2CID 145445960.
  27. ^ a b c d Baldwin, C., Persing, J. & Magnuson, D. (2004). Role of theory, research, and evaluation in adventure education. Journal of Experiential Education, 26(3) 167–183.
  28. ^ a b Ringer & Gillis 1996
  29. ^ a b c d Gillis 2000
  30. ^ a b c Maizell 1988
  31. ^ a b Gillis, H.L. (n.d.) If I conduct outdoor pursuits with clinical populations, am I an adventure therapist. Online.
  32. ^ a b c d Gillis & Mcleod 1992
  33. ^ a b c Hatala, E. (1992) Experiential learning and Therapy. In Hanna Glenda (Ed) Celebrating our tradition Charting our Future: Proceedings of the International Conference of the Association for Experiential Education. Alberta, Canada.
  34. ^ a b c Hattie, Marsh, Neill, & Richards 1997
  35. ^ Neill, J. T. (2003). Reviewing and benchmarking adventure therapy outcomes: Applications of meta-analysis. Journal of Experiential Education, 25(3), 316–321.
  36. ^ a b Bowen, Daniel J.; Neill, James T. (30 September 2013). "A Meta-Analysis of Adventure Therapy Outcomes and Moderators". The Open Psychology Journal. 6 (1): 28–53. doi:10.2174/1874350120130802001. ISSN 1874-3501.
  37. ^ Gillis, H. L., Speelman, E., Linville, N., Bailey, E., Kalle, A., Oglesbee, N., Sandlin, J., Thompson, L., & Jensen, J. (2016). Meta-analysis of treatment outcomes measured by the Y-OQ and Y-OQ-SR comparing wilderness and non-wilderness treatment programs. Child Youth Care Forum/ doi:10.1007/s10566-016-9360-3
  38. ^ Gillis & Mcleod, 1992, p. 151
  39. ^ Smith, M. L., Glass, G. V., & Miller, T. I. (1980). The benefits of psychotherapy. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  40. ^ Glass, J. S. (1999) The relationship of participation in a low-element challenge course to adolescent's self reported perceptions of group cohesion. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of North Carolina, Greensboro.


  • Blanchard, C. (1993). Effects of ropes course therapy on interpersonal behavior and self-esteem of adolescent psychiatric inpatients. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, New Mexico State University, New Mexico
  • Calver, R. (1996). Theory for practice: A frame work for thinking about experiential education. Journal of Experiential Education, 19 pp. 8–13.
  • Davis-Berman, Berman and Capone (1994). Therapeutic wilderness programs: A national survey. Journal of Experiential Education, 17 (2), 49–53.
  • Dickens, J., C. (1999) Behavioral indicators of conduct disorder in a ropes course initiative. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, The Union Institute, Cincinnati.
  • Gass, M. A. (1993). Adventure in therapy: Therapeutic applications of adventure programming in mental health settings. Boulder, CO: Association for Experiential Education.
  • Gillis, H.L. (2000) Going around in circles research and program evaluation in therapeutic adventure and adventure in therapy. Paper presented at the Second International Adventure in Therapy Conference: Therapy Within Adventure 23 March 2000 – Augsburg / Germany.
  • Gillis, H. L. & McLeod, J. (October 1992) Successful indoor adventure activities for treating substance abuse with adjudicated adolescents and incarcerated adults. Proceedings of the 20th International Conference of the Association for Experiential Education.
  • Gillis, H. L. & Simpson, C.A. (1992). Project Choices: Adventure based residential drug treatment for court referred youth. In M. A. Gass (Ed) Adventure therapy: Therapeutic applications of adventure programming in mental health settings Boulder, CO: Association for Experiential Education.
  • Hattie, J., Marsh, H. W., Neill, J. T., & Richards, G. E. (1997). Adventure education and outward bound: Out-of-class experiences that make a lasting difference. Review of Educational Research, 67, 43-97
  • Maizell, R. S. (1988) Adventure-based counseling as a therapeutic intervention with court-involved adolescents. Dissertation Abstracts International, 50/06-B, 2628.
  • Ringer, M. & Gillis H. L. (1995). Managing psychological depth in adventure programming. Journal of Experiential Education, 18(1) 42–50.
  • Schoel, J. & Maizell, S. (2002). Exploring islands of healing: New perspectives on adventure based counseling. Project Adventure; Beverly, MA.

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